Sunday, August 31, 2008

What is Pro-Life?

The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's VP has the Conservative Christian (i.e. Pro-Life) base excited. She may not know much else, but she's pro-life and that's good enough. But enough about Sarah Palin. The question I want to raise has to do with the definition of pro-life.

I am a Democrat and supporter of a presidential ticket that is pro-choice, though both are devout and professing Christians. There are those in the Christian community that insist that unless one is anti-abortion one is not only not pro-life but beyond the pale as far as being a Christian. How can I be a pastor and support pro-choice candidates, they ask?

In answer to the question I pose a few of my own.

1. When does life begin?

The easy answer is at conception, and while that may be technically true, is that when human life begins? This is important not only for the debate about abortion but also stem cell research. Beyond this, on what basis is this decision made? Is this based on science? Philosophy? Theology? On this question I don't believe that Scripture is clear and unambiguous (but more later).

2. Is there more to being pro-life than being anti-abortion?

I think this is an even more important question than the previous one. Being pro-life has been equated with being anti-abortion, but shouldn't we expand the definition? What about life after birth? What responsibility do we as society have for a person after birth? Doesn't being pro-life relate to such issues as poverty, education, immigration, capital punishment, war, torture? Again, on what basis is this definition made?

3. If we broaden the definition of being "pro-life," then which major political party is more "pro-life?"

I, of course, have a good idea as to what the answer should be. I believe that if we allow the definition to be expanded -- in a way that I think is faithful to the biblical text and especially the teachings of Jesus -- then I would claim to be pro-life (while also being pro-choice -- but that's another discussion).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Church and the Politics of Compassion

I'm preaching tomorrow about meeting God again for the first time -- see my sermon blog Words of Welcome. In preparation I've been hanging around in Marcus Borg's book The God We Never Knew (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997). Near the end of the book he talks about the "Politics of Compassion." He writes:

The church is to be the leaven of compassion in the world. In our time becoming leaven of compassion means consciousness-raising in local congregations about the social vision of the great voices of the biblical tradition, about the way social structures impact peoples lives, and about the contrast between compassion as a social vision and today's dominant political ethos. (p. 152).

Whether one is Republican, Democrat, Independent, Third Party, whatever, as Christians compassion should be the foundation of our political ethic. If we're to ask: What Would Jesus Do? I think Jesus would answer -- be compassionate, care for the poor and the oppressed -- do what it says in Matthew 25, to the least of these among you -- then you're taking care of me.

Our current political ethos is one that values individualism, but that's not what Borg calls the "Dream of God." Compassion isn't just an individual virtue, it should be expressed in our politics.

Sarah Palin -- What does a VP do?

Does Sarah Palin know what she's gotten herself into? Of course, the VP position is what you make of it. It has become much bigger in recent years, but what does she bring to this?





Thanks to Brad Hart

Who is Sarah Palin?


I must say that while I'd heard of Sarah Palin and knew that she was governor of Alaska, about all I knew about her before yesterday is that she was on some people's short list and that she'd had a baby recently. Like all of you, I'm still getting a sense of who she is. Indeed, John McCain probably knows about as much as we do!

That said, what is interesting is her ideological pedigree. Yes, she has a brief record as a sort of crusading reformer, standing up to oil interests and her own party. Indeed, it appears that Democrats in Alaska have a better opinion of her than the leaders of her own party. That being said, it should be telling that the group that has greeted this news with the greatest enthusiasm are leaders of the Religious Right. They see in Palin a standard bearer for the Conservative Christian agenda. Before yesterday the Right has been tepid in its support of McCain, who seems to have wanted Joe Lieberman on his ticket. When the powers that be in the party insisted that he go with someone palatable to the Religious Right he could have chosen Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota, but he didn't go that route. What he did was try to kill two birds with one stone -- attract disaffected Hillary supporters and satisfy the Religious Right. He seems to have done the latter, but may not do much with Hillary voters.

So, what do we know?

From the reports I've been reading, Sarah Palin is a member of an Assemblies of God church, and has been for much of her life. This would likely make her the first Pentecostal to make it on a major party ticket. She was also a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in High School. She is pro-life -- extremely so. It appears that she's not only against abortion, but against it even in cases of rape or incest. She is also strongly opposed to gay marriage and extending many rights to gays in general. First reports suggested that she signed a bill extended health and retirement benefits to same-sex partners, but it wasn't out of support for gays, but because she ran out of options. She instead supported a constitutional amendment that would deny such rights.

On other fronts, she appears to be a "Creationist," supports teaching both evolution and creationism (I'm assuming that this isn't for her ID, but young earth creationism -- but we need more info).

I'm hoping to hear more in the coming days about her. Of course, that won't change my vote, but it's important that we learn about her.

In one sense, it really doesn't matter that she's a Pentecostal, Pro-life, etc. But, it does matter if those views lead to the limitation of rights of Americans or undermines the work of America's scientists (remember that the Religious Right has been an opponent of scientific findings on climate change and stem-cell research). So, we wait to see.

The Post-American World -- Review


THE POST AMERICAN WORLD. By Fareed Zakaria. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 292 pp.

America is the lone superpower in the world, its influence touching just about every corner of the world and beyond. America alone has been to the moon, after all. A book with the title The Post-American World seems strangely out of place. Surely this is premature? Yes, America is bogged down in a costly and unpopular war in Iraq and its stature around the world is diminished, but still there’s no nation that can measure up with this one.

Appearances can be deceiving, or at least that’s the message of Fareed Zakaria’s insightful book – a book that Barack Obama has been pictured holding as he boarded a plane. Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and has a CNN show of his own. There are similarities in style and perspective here to the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, but there are also differences as well – just in case you’re not a Friedman fan. Zakaria comes at his subject with his own unique vantage point. He’s a Muslim Indian-American with a Harvard degree. He writes as one who appreciates the values of his adopted country, but also understands the world as it is.

Even if you don’t agree with everything he writes (he was, for instance, supportive of the Iraq invasion, though he admits underestimating the problems inherent in this task – in this he shares much with Friedman), I believe you’ll find this book both intriguing and enlightening.

Why “Post-America?” We’re moving into a Post-American world not because America has diminished in any real way, but rather because the world is catching up. The “Third World” as a definable entity is passing away and new alliances and expressions of world life are emerging. His two primary examples here are China and India – each of which have become powers in their own right in recent years. They may not challenge America militarily, but in many other ways are closing the gap quickly.

Choosing India and China as examples is important, because while both are Asian nations they don’t approach their task in the same way. One is autocratic and the other democratic; one is fairly orderly and the other can be quite messy. China can do some things that aren’t possible in India – like moving whole populations to build cities and infrastructure. But India has freedom of communication that China doesn’t. Besides that, because of its colonial heritage, India provides a nation full of English speakers – fluent in the language of commerce and world politics.

What Zakaria wants to do is free us from fear of the other. America’s future isn’t threatened by the rest of the world, unless we let that happen through isolationism or through trying to impose our views on the world. He calls on us to look at the world realistically. For instance – Iran is a threat to some degree, but not really.
The challenges from rogue states are also real, but we should consider them in context. The GDP of Iran is 1/68 that of the United States, its military spending 1/110 that of the Pentagon. If this is 1938, as many conservatives argue, then Iran is Romania, not Germany. North Korea is even more bankrupt and dysfunctional. Its chief threat – the one that keeps the Chinese government awake at night – is that it will implode, flooding the region with refugees. That’s power? (p. 17).

If we are to live in the world that stands before us, we need to see things as they really are and then act appropriately.

There are, the author suggests, three forces at work in the world – politics, economics, and technology. Old style Soviet communism is largely discredited and discarded. The alliances have changed, and technology is allowing nations to jump forward faster than ever before. Along with these tools of expansion there is the growth of nationalism. And it’s nationalism that is driving politics. Nationalism – as we’ve seen in places like Russia and Georgia can lead to conflict. The Chinese, whether they’re Communist or not, take great pride in their nation – just as much as American’s do. Zakaria writes:
Nationalism has always perplexed Americans. When the United States involves itself abroad, it always believes that it is genuinely trying to help other countries better themselves. From the Philippines and Haiti to Vietnam and Iraq, the native’s reaction to U.S. efforts has taken Americans by surprise. Americans take justified pride in their own country – we call it patriotism – and yet are genuinely startled when other people are proud and possessive of theirs. (P. 33).

The West has dominated the world for generations, and the U.S. has been the leading economic power in the world since the end of the 19th century. Yes, Britain had the Empire, but it lacked the economic dynamism that it former colony had. But in many ways Western domination is rather recent – and we tend to forget this fact. What happened was in many ways a turning inward by China and Japan several centuries back that diminished their power. But for now, the West – especially America – remains dominant, especially in regards to things like education and popular culture. Modernization is also inextricably linked to Western influence. But in time that will change, especially as China and India continue their march forward.

Consider the economic changes in China – its economy is doubling every eight years. Zakaria points out that in 1978 it made 200 air conditioners and in 2005 48 million. It exports more in a single day now than in an entire year in 1978. Its exports to the U.S. have increased 1600% in the past 15 years. They do all of this with very centralized planning. India is growing at a strong pace, similar to that of China, but without the centralized planning of its northern neighbor.

So, what of the future? America’s days as the sole superpower may be waning. No nation is ready or able to challenge the U.S. militarily, but things are changing. Like the British Empire in the years prior to its demise, America is no longer the economic dynamo that it once was. This doesn’t mean that it has no future, but it must rethink how it exists in this new globalized world. What America can do, if it chooses, is be the innovator it has always been. It still has a university system that has no peers – of course the vast majority of our science and engineering students come from over seas. But, while once they stayed here, now many are returning home. Still, Zakaria says that “higher education is America’s best industry” (p. 190) The problem, is that our schools feeding these universities are not standing up to the test.

So, what must we do? If we are to remain a power then we must regain our reputation in the world. Instead of hailing our status as the unipower, we must take a more humble path. Military might may be ours in abundance, but it has its limits. Soft power is the key to success. To remain strong, America must do six things: 1. It must get its priorities straight – meaning one must choose between regime change and policy change. You can’t try to do both – as in Iran. Every time, for instance, that America threatens Iran with regime change, the more likely it is to pursue nuclear weaponry. 2. “Build broad rules, not narrow interests.” We must choose between our own narrow interests and setting the broad rules in which the world conducts itself. 3. “Be Bismark not Britain.” This is key – Britain, he says, tried to keep a balance against rising powers – keep them at bay, while Bismark tried to engage them and have better relations with them so as to be a bridge. 4. “Order a la carte.” What this means is that the nation operates multilaterally – in other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. We need to be “accommodating, flexible, and adaptable” rather than insist on a pure approach. 5. “Think asymmetrically.” Traditional military power isn’t always the best approach. 6. “Legitimacy is power.” In other words, how the world views us determines how we work in it. Here is the problem of anti-Americanism, which is on the rise.

The book’s closing paragraph offers a way forward:
For America to thrive in this new and challenging era, for it to succeed amid the rise of the rest, it need fulfill only one test. It should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country today as it was for this awkward eighteen-year-old a generation ago. (p. 259).

The future depends not on our military power, or even our economics, but on the way we conduct ourselves on the world stage. Bellicosity won’t do the job. That we’re entering the Post-American era doesn’t signal the decline of America, only that the playing field is leveling out – what Friedman calls the flattening of the world. If we operate as if we’re still in charge we will face a dangerous future, but if we can embrace our new role, then we can do well.

This is a book worth delving into, and considering its message. As an Obama supporter, I’m hoping he took seriously what he was reading!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Questionable Judgment

They say that the choice of a vice president candidate reveals a lot about a presidential nominee. Barack Obama chose Joe Biden, an experienced hand, ready to step in should need arise. Yes, Biden fills in some of Obama's gaps in experience, but most importantly he's tested.

John McCain has made much of Obama's resume, suggesting that Obama isn't ready to be president. So, what does he do? He selects as his running mate a first term governor who has been in office for only 2 years, and before that was mayor of a town of less than 10,000 people. I'm sure she's a great governor for Alaska, but isn't this a rather big jump?

As my wife and I heard her speak -- I was waiting to hear her -- I must say both of us were underwhelmed. Now, that might be expected of me, but Cheryl's not the die-hard partisan like me, but she was not impressed.

So, why did he choose a governor with such little experience -- virtually no foreign policy experience? Well, I think you could see the writing on the wall earlier in the week as McCain and company made a big deal about Hillary not being chosen as VP nominee. He's pandering to women who are disaffected by Hillary's loss. But remember what Hillary asked her supporters: Were you in this just for me, or were you in this for the issues I championed? Sarah Palin is a woman, yes, but her positions on the issues will be very different from those of most of Hillary's followers. Yes, it was strategic, but I do think it represents questionable judgment. If McCain wanted to choose a woman there are other women, like Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchinson or even Libby Dole, who have the experience and gravitas. This is grasping at straws. Yes, it'll get the tongues wagging, but will it wear well?

So, if this is now an election about judgment rather than experience, I think Obama has won this round!

Eight is Enough!


Last night, before a crowd of more than 85,000 people, Barack Obama accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party and laid down the gauntlet. He rebutted the criticism and laid down an agenda. He contrasted his temperament and judgment with John McCain's "experience." He said -- Eight is Enough, that is, we've had enough of the Bush-GOP years, and now it's time for change.

Obama spoke eloquently of his roots and grounding, rebutting the idea that he's merely a celebrity filling a suit. He shared his commitment to the welfare of the American people -- without calling into question McCain's character.

McCain has a compelling story, but that story in itself is not proof he should be elected. He has a Maverick reputation, but in recent years he has backed off all of his previous commitments and embraced the Bush agenda (voting 90-95% of the time with Bush). He once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agents of intolerance, and yet this year sought the endorsements of Rod Parsley and John Hagee, two preachers who make Falwell and Robertson look like liberals.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden offer a real contrast and the opportunity for real change. The speech last night should end any idea that Obama isn't presidential. There is no room for turning backwards -- it's forward we march. And as for putting America first, Obama told John McCain that the Republicans don't have ownership of that either.

Speaking of ownership. Remember George Bush telling us that we should be an ownership society? That was, of course, before the collapse of the housing market -- and Obama turned that idea on its head and said to the American people. That idea simply means: "You're on your own." Remember Katrina. That says enough.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Historic Moment for America

When this nation was founded much of the African American population of the new country was the property of white owners. These slave owners embraced the principles of freedom enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but they did not see fit to extend them to persons of color.

It was not until 1864, in the midst of a Civil War, that a proclamation was issued that released slaves in the states of the Confederacy (but not all slaves). Still, Blacks were not truly free and would not be truly free for another century.

Forty-five years ago today, in Washington, DC, as the culminating moment of the March on Washington, Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a Dream" speech. That speech spoke of a new day when people of every race and creed might sit down together in peace. We are still working on that dream. It was but five years later that a gunman took down that messenger of hope for our nation.

Tonight, at Invesco Field, an African American man, the child of an African father and a white mother who hailed from Kansas, will accept the nomination of his party for the presidency of the United States. It is truly a historic moment for our nation. It does not wipe away all the years of struggle, nor does it demonstrate that America has reached the point where the color of one's skin no longer matters. The continued racist sentiment directed toward Barack Obama suggests that we've not reached that moment. However, tonight we make great strides forward. Even if he should fall short, it will not take away from the moment -- even as the fact that Hillary Clinton fell short does not take away from what she accomplished for women in this nation. No longer can anyone say that women or ethnic minorities cannot run and win at the highest levels. We're still on the journey, but the journey has moved forward.

Let us continue living out the dream!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No Way, No How, No McCain!


These are the words that Hillary Clinton uttered last night in a major speech, in which she gave her unwavering support for Barack Obama. Oh, the GOP operatives are parsing her speech, hoping to undermine the level of support. They want you to believe that it's tepid and mechanical, but if so, then she gave her best speech I've ever heard in mechanical fashion.

She made it clear that this is a pivotal election, that John McCain will hold back America, that John McCain will not provide affordable health care to all Americans.

She also told her supporters to remember why they had supported her -- what issues drew them to her candidacy -- and then told them to join together with the Obama supporters to take back the White House and restore America's promise.

So, was it effective?. I do think so. But ultimately I'm not her audience. But, I'm quite pleased!

And as she said:

No Way, No How, No McCain!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Missional and Progressive

I'm reading A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation by Rick Rouse and Craig Van Gelder (Fortress, 2008). In part I'm reading this because I've been looking for a primer on the missional church movement to use with my Elders. I'm just getting started with this brief book, but as I was reading I started thinking -- how might we be missional and progressive?
I ask this question because the more I read in missional oriented works I keep getting reminded that by most definitions to be missional is to be evangelical -- even conservative in theology even if not in practice. Yet, I'm drawn to the missional ideal because I believe that if the church is to be renewed it must understand that it's work must be tied up with what God is doing -- in the neighborhood. Thus, we become agents of God's mission.
So, taking a break, I looked up the words missional and progressive. Doing so I came upon a piece by my former philosophy professor at Fuller -- Jack Rogers. Jack was on the progressive side of things at Fuller during that era (early 80s) and has become more openly progressive over the years.

In this posting Jack spoke to the issue of being missional -- something the Presbyterians (like the Disciples) are talking about becoming -- while embracing the LBGT community. Jack notes that the drive to become missional is coming from the theological conservatives, but across the denomination there is openness to the idea -- so, he asks: what is missional?
So, he raises the issue:

Yet, what was extraordinary about this assembly is that collectively the majority of commissioners seemed to recognize, on some level, that in order to create a missional church we have to grant equal rights to our members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The two issues are interconnected. Think about it – if the goal is for the church to be woven into the very fabric of society – we can’t have preconceived notions about our neighbors. We have to go out with open hearts to preach and practice the message that we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Affirming the equality of all God’s people is a prerequisite for reaching out in Christian service to all God’s people. So the GA approved overtures to grant equal rights to people who are LGBT and also approved steps to create a more missional church. In so doing, I believe the Assembly found a new way forward.

This is, of course, not simply a Presbyterian issue. If we are to be a congregation where our ministry is interwoven into the very fabric of society, where we are engaging in the work of God in the neighborhood, who is our neighbor?

A Democratic Prayer?

The Democratic Party is seen by many, both inside and outside the party, as the more secular political entity of the two major parties. That Barack Obama has spoken more openly about faith and invited the involvement of people of faith into the process has cheered some and frightened others. There are questions about whether liberal Christians (like myself) might too closely identify with the Democratic Party and thus be co-opted (as Conservative Christians have with the GOP).
Yesterday, as the DNC Convention opened in Denver there was an interfaith forum and then last night an Evangelical -- Donald Miller -- gave the invocation. I understand it was controversial. I didn't see it or hear it live, but did find the transcript on his website. I post it and invite your thoughts. Note that it touches on issues that are dear to most Progressives but ends with the invocation of Jesus. The question many will have is this: In this forum is the invocation of Jesus appropriate? I welcome your thoughts on this as well.

"Father God,

This week, as the world looks on, help the leaders in this room create a civil dialogue about our future.
We need you, God, as individuals and also as a nation.
We need you to protect us from our enemies, but also from ourselves, because we are easily tempted toward apathy.
Give us a passion to advance opportunities for the least of these, for widows and orphans, for single moms and children whose fathers have left.
Give us the eyes to see them, and the ears to hear them, and hands willing to serve
them.
Help us serve people, not just causes. And stand up to specific injustices rather than vague notions.
Give those in this room who have power, along with those who will meet next week, the courage to work together to finally provide health care to those who don’t have any, and a living wage so families can thrive rather than struggle.
Help us figure out how to pay teachers what they deserve and give children an equal opportunity to get a college education.
Help us figure out the balance between economic opportunity and corporate gluttony.
We have tried to solve these problems ourselves but they are still there. We need your help.
Father, will you restore our moral standing in the world.
A lot of people don’t like us but that’s because they don’t know the heart of the average American.
Will you give us favor and forgiveness, along with our allies around the world.
Help us be an example of humility and strength once again.
Lastly, father, unify us.
Even in our diversity help us see how much we have in common.
And unify us not just in our ideas and in our sentiments—but in our actions, as we
look around and figure out something we can do to help create an America even
greater than the one we have come to cherish.
God we know that you are good.
Thank you for blessing us in so many ways as Americans.
I make these requests in the name of your son, Jesus, who gave his own life against the forces of injustice.
Let Him be our example.
Amen."




Here is the video:

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Battle Begins!

Today the Democratic Party Convention opens in Denver and everyone's in a dither about Obama's apparent shrinking lead over John McCain and the supposed defections by Hillary supporters. So, what's going to happen? Is Obama going to lose to John McCain? Of course that's always a possibility. Remember that the US Women's softball team which never loses came in second in the Olympics -- so it's possible. But . . .

Here's my thoughts on this:

1. John McCain is a very flawed candidate, whose primary claim is that he's a former POW. That makes him a war hero, but it doesn't qualify him to be President. He claims to be a Maverick -- even suggesting that things are worse off now than 4 years ago, and that he's stood up to the President. Well, the fact is, McCain has embraced almost all of Bush's policies and voted with Bush 95% of the time.

2. There is plenty of time to get things in order. The Warren Forum reports, which seems to have suggested Obama fell flat, will in the end prove evisceral. For one thing most Americans were watching the Olympics, and it's becoming clearer that this was not in any way a level playing field.

3. Do you really think that avid Hillary supporters will bolt the Democratic Party and vote for McCain who promises to appoint more justices to the Supreme Court such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. So, some of them are unhappy that she's not on the ticket or that she didn't get vetted. Obama was not obligated to choose her and she knows that. This isn't about Hillary, it's about the Democratic Party and the need to change the focus of the country after 8 years of disastrous rule. Remember that until January 2007, just over 18 months ago, this nation was effectively ruled by a conservative Republican government -- controlling all 3 branches of the government. So, unless you want 4 more years of Bush-like policies, you'll want to vote for Obama-Biden

4. Obsession with Change needs to go away. I agree with Frank Rich that Obama needs to deep six the "Change You Can Believe In" mantra. It worked well in the Primaries, but the issues are somewhat different. Yes, change is in order, but we also need a leader who will think carefully about the world and its issues -- that is, there's going to have to be a good dose of pragmatism. Choosing Joe Biden suggests not that Obama is weak and needs a tender -- as did GW -- but that Obama wants a strong partner who will speak his mind. Yes, Biden is an insider, but Obama will have to work the inside as well as the outside. Obama will give the face of change, but he needs to have some one telling him what's going on inside.

So my word to all the pessimists out there -- remember that the Press needs to fill space and they'll make stories if need be. They're telling us that Clinton delegates are going to create a scene and such -- why? So we'll tune in. If everything was happy, would we tune in? And yes Obama is going to have to get some mud on his hands. It's unfortunate but John McCain has gotten good at throwing it. And, like Hillary did, McCain will claim that Obama's being unfair in criticizing him -- why? Because he's supposed to be a different kind of politician. Well, choosing Joe Biden should tell you something, Obama is ready to rumble!

Final word -- Remember, Barack Obama is running for President -- not sainthood!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who is Jesus?

Having read through Doug Pagitt's interesting book -- A Christianity Worth Believing -- I found intriguing his take on Jesus. He admits that in moving away from what he calls the Greek Jesus -- the one who served as a bridge between an angry and distant God and a sinful humanity -- to one rooted in the Jewish tradition he was forced to ask the question: Who is Jesus for me? In other words, if he's not simply a means to an end (rescue from divine judgment), then what should we make of Jesus?

He writes:

The Christian faith finds its center in the story of Jesus not because this is where the problem of God's anger is solved. Jesus is the core of Christianity because it is through Jesus that we see the fullness of God's hopes for the world. Jesus is the redemption of the creation plan. He shows us what it means to live in partnership with our creator. He leads us into what it means to be integrated with God. (Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing, p. 195).

Of course this isn't as clean and easy as the standard line. It doesn't fit neatly in a tract. But the point is -- as Christians we find our selves reconnected to the Creator who loves us in Jesus, and it's Jesus who shows us how to live in the presence of this God.

So the question is: are we comfortable with this more complex understanding of Jesus? It's not cut and dry, but it allows us to enter into relationship with the intimate and loving God rather than fear the demanding tyrant who holds sinners in his angry hands.



Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Christianity Worth Believing -- Review


A CHRISTIANITY WORTH BELIEVING: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left out, Left Behind, and Let Down in us All. By Doug Pagitt. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. xiii + 242 pages.

What is Emergent Christianity? That is a question that continues to roll around the Christian neighborhood. It is evangelical – or at least it has clear evangelical roots. Proponents like Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones speak of it as more a conversation among friends than even a movement. Although it is evangelical in many senses, it isn’t your parent’s variety of evangelicalism. It is more open in its theology and broader in its social concerns. At many levels it appears to be a bridge to more liberal main liners. As one who emerged from a similar milieu (I’m a Fuller graduate after all), I continually wonder if I would have become part of this group had I been just a decade younger (I will admit that Brian McLaren is older than me, but . . . ).

In Christianity Worth Believing – as you can tell from the subtitle – Doug Pagitt, pastor of Minneapolis’ Solomon’s Porch, offers an alternative vision of the Christian faith. He calls this a “Christianity worth believing,” but he makes it clear from the outset that while he’s a Christian, he confesses: “I don’t believe in Christianity” (p. 2). He goes on to clarify what he means by this statement. He doesn’t believe in the versions of the Christian faith that have dominated for the past 15 centuries. They may have been appropriate for their time, but they no longer speak to those longing to walk with God today. These old theologies seek to answer questions no one is asking.

There are many ways to tell the Christian story, but personal confessions and autobiographies often do the trick well. It worked for St. Augustine, among others. Pagitt notes that he didn’t grow up Christian, but came to faith in high school after watching a passion play. For some reason that production caught his ear and his heart, but even then he wasn’t sure what it meant to be Christian. That would take time, and in the end he would come to a very different understanding of faith, one very different from the one described in the tracts he once handed out. Early on he confesses to be a contrarian, and there is definitely a contrarian tone here. He wants to offer the reader a sense of the Christian faith, but he has to do a lot of deconstruction before he’s able to offer a suitable alternative.

His conversion was life changing, but like many of us he got caught up in the absolutes and the “cut and dry” sensibility. Over time he began to have questions and found that the answers to his questions often were overly complicated and joyless. What he wanted was a living faith, one that took account of the circumstances of his life. In an early presentation of the faith he was told that Facts came first, then faith, and only then feelings, a pronouncement that suggested that who we are as a person was slighted. He writes:

“Now think about that. What is the point of a Christianity that doesn’t involve our circumstances? The Bible is full of stories that are about faith lived out in particular circumstances. I got into Christianity because I wanted it to interfere with my circumstances. They have everything to do with faith” (p. 25).

Pagitt tried to do it the traditional way, but it didn’t work. He needed a faith that was contextual, one that took the biblical text seriously – especially the gospels. He sought out a faith that made sense of the changes that took place as the church moved from its Jewish roots to the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, at one point he shares his amazement at discovering that Jesus was Jewish. He resisted this idea because it seemed to undermine his own sense of whom Jesus was – the savior who died for his sins. But by understanding this transition, he began to understand that Christianity has made cultural adaptations – and continues to make them. These adaptations, however, aren’t the final word. Unfortunately with hellenization came the loss of the Jewish roots. Throughout the book, he seeks to reconnect with the original Hebrew context. At times there’s almost a “restorationist” impulse here.

In time he began to question the views of God, sin, Jesus, and the Kingdom of God that had been handed down to him. He found them too Greek and not sufficiently Hebrew. God in this telling was distant and abstract, but the God he discovered in Scripture was engaged, loving, and committed. Thus, out went the “omnis” and in came an integrated God, a God who is free to act and to interact.

Biblically he’s, at times, almost a literalist. He speaks at times as if, for instance, Adam and Eve are historical personages. But ultimately that’s not his issue. What he’s concerned about when it comes to the Bible is that it not be used as a weapon against other Christians or non-Christians to beat them into submission and that it not be used as a reference book (in other words, don’t proof-text). Instead, he looks at the Bible as a “dynamic story of life and faith” (p. 63). And as for its use, he confesses that he’s not always sure that the Bible is the best starting point for faith, reminding us that Abraham didn’t have the Bible when God pronounced him righteous. Neither did Moses. Beyond that the Disciples didn’t have the letters of Paul to use to interpret what Jesus had to say. Thus, the Bible is the result and not the cause of the story. That allows him to embrace the Bible as a living document, whose authority is found in the breath of God and not a doctrine of inerrancy.

This is part autobiography and his experience with holistic medicine led to a new way of looking at God and humanity, one that is holistic – so that things are connected. With this in mind, he rejects what he refers to as dualism or a gnostic understanding that separates body and spirit and denies the value of the body. This will prove important because in the end he will want to emphasize the humanity of Jesus and the here and now presence of the kingdom. By rejecting a dualistic understanding, he finds himself embracing an understanding of salvation that brings healing to both body and soul. As for Jesus, he is all in all!

When it comes to God, the question is: should we embrace one that is “up and out” or “down and in?” His answer is to embrace “down and in. The “up and out” God is distant, needing his anger assuaged and honor satisfied. In this Pagitt might have been helped had he recognized that much of the foundation for satisfaction atonement is rooted in medieval not early Christian views – more Anselm than Athanasius. Whatever the case of his way of getting there, he finds that satisfaction theology is not satisfactory. The God he originally learned of, wasn’t one he was especially fond of:

“This God was perfect and removed. While this God loved humanity, God’s love was conditional – it was only actualized for the right kind of follower. This God was opposed to most of humanity. This God was primarily concerned with the obedience of his subjects. Basically, this was the Greco-Roman hybrid God” (p. 99).

In its place he embraced an understanding of God that was active and involved, loving and gracious. This Gospel offered a message of hope and joy.

As he began to wrestle with God, he began to look at humanity. He didn’t want to reject the idea of sin, but the idea that humans are fundamentally and ontologically evil and incapable of good didn’t make sense. He saw in Genesis a description of humanity created in the image of God. Surely the fall didn’t totally deface this image. This idea of total depravity that stands at the center of much of Western Theology didn’t work. In part this was because it didn’t fit with the way he looked at others. Is everyone around us a collection of “dirty, rotten, little sinners . . . ?” If so, how should we look at each other and interact with each other. And then on top of that we’re told that because we’re dirty sinners capable only of evil, Jesus has to die on the cross to bridge the gap. As he lets go of this “depravity theology” he begins to hear a better story.

“The story that lets us know that we are created in the image of God as partners and collaborators with God” (p. 129).
What all of this does is allow us to understand that God isn’t concerned only about the vertical relationship, but is also concerned about the horizontal one. Jesus is the one who brings healing and reconciliation, not just a way to heaven. He takes seriously the context that gets Jesus put on the cross – the political one. But as he points out, rightly, the message of Jesus concerning the kingdom was very different from the one of Caesar – it was one of love and compassion, not power. The Cross and Resurrection aren’t meant to appease divine anger, but serve as signs of God’s act of healing creation. And so, in affirming this new understanding we are invited to walk in the new way of Jesus, a way of living that is in marked contrast from what we’ve been living.

A Christianity worth believing is one that is life changing, but it’s also earthy. It’s concerned about what God is doing in the here and now to bring justice and peace to this world. It affirms an afterlife, but such and idea is left largely undefined, as it should be. Our focus here is not on getting out but transforming the world here.

Doug Pagitt offers us a very useful book. First of all, because it further defines Emergent Christianity. But perhaps more important, he offers us a view of Christian faith that has a human face on it. He recognizes the problems inherent in the traditional telling of the story and is willing to offer a new way of looking at things. At times the focus is on the deconstructing and not everything is reconstructed, but he seems on the right path. Of course, not everyone will be of the same opinion, for this new trend in evangelical theology has produced significant opposition. But for one like me, it seems most appropriate.


Finally let me give thanks to Kelly Hughes of Dechant-Hughes for this and other books I've reviewed.

Retro-Political ads -- from John Adams in 1800?

The blog American Creation posted this you-tube send up of what a John Adams ad might have looked like in 1800. Remember the Adams team was warning that the libertine Jefferson would take America down the road to ruin. Of course, that didn't prove to be correct, but this fictive retelling is quite illuminating and fun!!


Politics, Religion and Modern Life

A commenter to this blog found my political commentary oddly out of place for a blog calling itself "Pondering on a Faith Journey." My quick response was: politics is part of life, so I've chosen to comment on it. Now, I don't believe for one minute that politicians will solve all our problems. On the other hand, I do believe in the importance of good government, government that is compassionate and concerned about the people who make up the "Polis."

The commenter also suggested that Jesus steered clear of politics, but many contemporary biblical scholars, from Walter Wink to Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg to Tom Wright would disagree. There was a reason the man from Galilee went to the cross, and it wasn't simply because the hands of Pilate and Caiaphas were driven by God so that the sins of humanity might be washed away in a sea of divine-human blood. The Kingdom of God is very different from that of Caesar, but it still has political ramifications.

But, all that being said, Liberation Theologians long ago reminded us of the centrality of politics to human life. Even evading politics is in itself a political act. John Miguez Bonino wrote this about the "omnipresence of politics."

If for the moment we take "politics" in the most elemental meaning of the term, as the sum total of all the relations that go to make up life in a particular society, we can easily see that all the marked tendencies in modern life -- urbanization, science-technology, bureaucratization, communications -- tend to "politicize" our life, that is, to make every act a social or public act in which no only primary -- face to face -- relations but also complex secondary relations are involved. (Jose Miguez Bonino, Toward a Christian Political Ethics, Fortress Press, 1983, p. 11).

If Bonino is correct politics involves all of life -- including our faith professions. It is true, as Michael Westmoreland-White pointed out in earlier comments -- we must be aware of the trap of becoming obsessed with certain politically partisan issues. My own involvement with Barack Obama is pretty limited to the blog. I've tried to give my voice in support of his candidacy because I believe he offers us hope for a new way of being America. But, once again, neither he nor any politician will prove to be any one's savior!

It's Obama-Biden


The news is in -- Barack Obama has chosen Joe Biden to be his running mate. I believe that this is a very good choice. Biden as I said yesterday offers Obama an independent and experienced voice to temper his own change agenda. Biden's experience in foreign affairs and with the judiciary committee's will be especially helpful. Biden has strong blue collar credentials and is a devout (if pro-choice) Catholic.

Yes, Joe tends to talk a lot and he said some things in the heat of campaigning that suggested Obama was a bit wet behind the ears. But hey, that's part of the process. He's said nice things about John McCain, but where's the sin in that. Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy are friends as well.

There were other strong possibilities, but the timing wasn't right. This was the match for this time and place, and it's a good one.

So, now we move forward, knowing who will be the Democratic banner carriers.

By the way, thanks to Bruce Tomaso of the Dallas Morning News' Religion blog for quoting me!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The VP Decision

Tomorrow we will know who Barack Obama has chosen for VP. There has been a lot of speculation running out there, and I've had my thoughts on the process. But now that we're down to the wire, speculation suggests Joe Biden.

David Brooks says he hopes Biden's the one. I don't always agree with Brooks, often don't (perhaps more often than not), but I think he may be on to something. Whatever Biden's flaws, most of them are right out on the surface -- he talks too much. But, Biden is a fighter and he's experienced. He's blue collar and Catholic. He's old school, but open to the future. He's independent, which is something Obama says he's looking for in a VP.

In recent months I've thought that this or that one might be a good choice, but given everything, choosing Joe Biden is probably the best thing he can do. We'll see, but I think this is a good move (if it happens). Of course, I've always liked him!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Clergy Compensation

As a Protestant pastor I've not taken a vow of poverty. I am a well educated (Ph.D.) pastor of a formerly large congregation that has diminished in size. I make a decent salary and can live comfortably. I have health insurance (but not dental), a solid pension, continuing education moneys, and a nice tax break on my housing expenses.

So, what is average? Apparently the national average is slightly more than $81,000 in total compensation. I make slightly more than that. Presbyterians, as one might expect, make the most. And education makes a significant difference in pay -- as does of course the size of congregation.

So, what is appropriate compensation? And should pastors negotiate for a suitable salary? When I was in seminary a pastor speaking to a class shared that we get paid not for doing ministry but rather so that we might not have to work at another job -- freeing us up to do this specialized ministry. I think there is some truth to that. There is also the issue of being in a position of not worrying about the family. After all, we Protestants not only have ourselves to consider, but also our families.

Tax Game


John McCain says that Barack Obama will raise middle class tax rates -- well here's what the two tax plans will likely do. From the LA Times -- What do you think?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ode to Marty's MEMO

I've been a long time Christian Century reader, and through these many years I have often turned first to Martin Marty's inside-the-back-cover column. Of course, he started writing this column long before I became a subscriber -- indeed, Marty has been with the Century longer than I've been alive.
So, it's with great sadness to read that with this most recent issue -- the one that arrived in my mail box yesterday (and not the one that is currently linked on the website) -- the column comes to an end. I know that they will bring together valuable and important columns to "replace" it, but it won't have the same wit and energy that MEMO has had.
Now, Marty will still be writing for the Century, just not in the same place or likely as often. Times are a changin' as I tell my congregation, and this is as true with a journal as it is with the rest of life.
So, thank you Martin Marty for being such a blessing to so many!

Faith and Politics -- the Warren Dilemma

I don't know what the ratings for Saturday evening's forum were -- after all, it took place right in the middle of the Olympics. The punditry seems to have come down all over the place. It's obvious that McCain knew the crowd (though Rick Warren claimed on Larry King last night that the two campaigns had equal numbers of tickets -- but, if that's true it sure didn't seem that way from my brief observation of the proceedings). So, who won? Who knows.

I find it interesting that Welton Gaddy (Interfaith Alliance) in his blog response (Progressive Revival) found Warren's demeanor and much of the questioning to be both civil and helpful. But, the focus on faith professions (what does Christ mean to you?) and even the location of the forum in a church to be problematic.

In response to Pastor Warren's questions on religion, both John McCain and Barack Obama seemed compelled to offer confessions of faith as a credential for their attractiveness as a candidate for the White House. But, that should not be the case. There is no religious test for public office according to our Constitution and we have no business trying to establish what the Constitution forbids.


Although I find it refreshing to see Democrats willing to address matters of faith, I do think that requiring them to define their faith to be problematic. Of course, for Obama, this is much more problematic because of the perception by a goodly number of people that he is a Muslim. A forum like this allows him to dispel the rumor -- but as he himself has said, the very fact that he has to make this distinction reflects the anti-Muslim sentiment that is running rampant in our nation.

So, as Gaddy reminds us, the Constitution itself declares clearly that there is no religious test. It does not matter whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist, or even Humanist -- there is no religious test. This is something we too easily forget.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama and Families

We hear a lot about family values. What exactly does that mean? For some it means being anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and pro-tax cuts (for the rich?). But might not family values mean something much broader? Might it have to do with education, health care, jobs, housing?

From the response given to John McCain Saturday evening at the Rick Warren event, you may be led to believe that evangelicals are strongly in his camp. Yes, they cheered his answers, which to me seemed almost pandering.

But not all Christians nor all evangelicals stand in McCain's camp, nor do all evangelicals define family values in quite the same way.

There is an ad for Obama (which some people have seen as being anti-McCain) that reminds us that families are very important to him. Among the people appearing in this ad are Brian McLaren and George Bush's pastor, Kirby John Caldwell.

Take a look and a listen -- it's from the Matthew 25 group and is not sponsored by Obama's campaign.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

All the People are Welcome

My congregation isn't part of the United Church of Christ -- though we're partners (Disciples of Christ) -- but this commercial is excellent and represents the vision I have for our congregation.


The Russian Push in Georgia

Even as we remain bogged down in Afghanistan (with a resurgent Taliban) and Iraq (who want us out now), the Russians have gone hunting for lost territory. For a time, the Russians seemed like a downtrodden nation, moving backwards in time. But while things aren't pretty there, the Russians have been flexing their muscles -- becoming in many ways the bullies of the neighborhood. They have been stirring up trouble in neighboring countries (all former Soviet Republics) and with the invasion of Georgia, seem intent on regaining their power in the region. They signed a cease-fire but have shown no signs they plan to honor it. They claim to be protecting pro-Moscow residents in two breakaway republics, but seem intent on regaining dominance in a pro-western nation. Georgia made a terrible mistake in invading South Ossetia, but the days since have shown that the Russians have no fear of the West.

The Bush doctrine on "pre-emptive" war seems to have attracted a following in Russia -- Vladimir Putin has learned the lesson well and has followed suit. Bush, of course, is a lame duck with little power or popularity. Even his own party's nominee has taken to dissing him (even though McCain has voted with Bush on 95% of bills since 2004). So, with an otherwise distracted US, Russia will do its thing with impunity.

So, are we better off today than 8 years ago?

Politics and the Faith Forum


Last night Barack Obama and John McCain appeared for separate conversations with RickWarren, pastor of the Southern Baptist congregation Saddleback Community Church. Saddleback is a conservative evangelical church sitting in a fairly conservative part of Southern California. Warren has become an important evangelical voice in many ways because he has not engaged in strident political efforts. He's conservative on the conservative issues, but he's broadened the agenda to things like AIDS and poverty.

So, last night the two presidential candidates appeared. I was out of town with my wife for a weekend away so I didn't watch the whole thing -- caught the last half hour of Obama and watched the first 1/2 hour of McCain. Therefore, I can't compare their answers, but here's my observation.

Obama was talking about things like the economy and taxes. He got positive response from the crowd, especially when he said that if we want things like good schools and roads without leaving a legacy of debt to our children then we have to pay for them. That good a good round of applause, as did his responses on things like merit pay and orphans. I didn't see his response on abortion, but from what I heard his answer was probably the right one, but he could have phrased it better. To say that determining when life begins is "above my pay grade" sounds flippant. A better answer would have been that "this is an issue that has long troubled people of faith and that people of faith have not come to one answer. Because that is a theological question I will leave it to those better equipped to answer." But what is done is done. At the end he received a warm response and standing ovation.

You could tell from the response to John McCain that this was an overwhelmingly GOP crowd. And he gave them what they wanted to hear. He said he'd drill, drill, drill and he said that life begins at conception. He made constant references to his time as a POW. This appears to be his foundational narrative. That he's a war hero no one should deny -- but whether that makes him ready to be president is another thing. The same is true of Obama's narrative. It is compelling, but by itself doesn't qualify him to be president.

So, from my brief observations of the evening's proceedings, it seemed to me that Obama was comfortable and engaging -- but in a crowd that wasn't necessarily supportive. McCain knew this was a GOP crowd and seemed, at least early on willing to pander to them. He threw out the anti-abortion rhetoric, but the fact that earlier in the week he made it clear he would consider a pro-choice running mate raises some questions.

But all in all, I think this was a good format. Warren asked the same questions of both, didn't seem to have any gotcha questions. Both were asked about moral failings and faith foundations. Warren couched the faith questions in world view terms, which is appropriate. Could he have pushed further on some answers, yes I think so, but all in all this was much better than the earlier debates.

And as Obama said in his closing comments, his hope is that the nation will get to know both candidates and then make an informed decision. That is my hope as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What does it mean to be 50?

I turned 50 in March. I think that this was a life-changing event for me. In many ways it pushed me to move toward taking a new position. So, when I heard that Madonna turned 50 today, I began to wonder what it means to be 50. From the time that Madonna broke onto the scene she has helped set the cultural bar. So, I'm wondering what she'll do next?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Like a Good Neighbor -- Recognized in Troy

A profile piece went into today's local twice a week paper the Troy Eccentric. It was fun to see this appear on the front page. Take a look and enjoy: "New Pastor Promises to be a Good Neighbor."

Founding Faith -- A Review


FOUNDING FAITH: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. By Steven Waldman. New York: Random House, 2008. xvi + 277 pages.

It is no secret that Americans are a religious people. More than any other developed nation, we not only believe in God, but we regularly go to church, synagogue, mosque, and temple. We do this without any social inducement or government coercion. This is true, because at the core of American life is the belief that we should be free to believe and practice our faith as we choose. That belief has enabled the faithful to remain steadfast in their beliefs and practices, even as much of the rest of the Western world has become increasingly secularized.

The secret to this American success can be traced back to the nation’s founding, to a time when a group of British colonies, most of which had established churches, threw off their rulers, established a new nation, and came to the conclusion that the religious pluralism already present in this new nation (even if it remained predominantly Protestant) would undermine the nation’s unity if the government did not grant some kind of religious freedom. There was not, of course unanimity as to how this would be accomplished – the fact that state establishments continued into the 1830s shows this to be true. In the end, however, the work of the Founders, especially in laying out the Constitution, laid the foundation for the religious freedom Americans enjoy today.

In recent years the discussion of America’s religious identity has become at times heated and has spurred the publication of numerous books and articles, some scholarly and others that are more general and popular. Some of these contributions leave much to be desired, but in the mix have been a number of helpful and well-written tomes, including ones written by Randy Balmer, Mark Toulouse, Jon Meacham, and David Holmes. The most helpful works have explored the historical connections that link today to the Founders. They have helped us understand where we started and the road we took to get to where we are today.

Among the most recent offerings is Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith (2008). Like Jon Meacham, Waldman is a journalist. Before becoming the founder of Beliefnet.com he served as editor at U.S. News and World Report. There are numerous similarities between the Waldman and the Meacham books, in part I think because both write as journalists who understand how to communicate their message in bold and concise fashion. At the same time neither is a professional historian, so both rely on the judgments of leading historians. That reliance is reassuring – it helps us understand that they aren’t making this stuff up. There’s another similarity between the Meacham book and Waldman’s; they both take a middle path between Christian nation partisans and secularists. What sets them apart is Waldman’s focus on the founding generation.

At the heart of this book is the question: what did the Founders believe and how does that belief affect what we do now. To put it another way, “What Would the Founding Fathers Do?” (WWFFD) – Waldman uses this exact acronym (p. 197). To best gauge this impact, Waldman focuses on five figures – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. Other figures, including Patrick Henry appear, but Waldman believes (rightly so) that these figures proved most influential in the end. They didn’t all agree on every point, but all of them, at least in the end, realized that America’s success as a nation required not just toleration, but inclusion of multiple voices. Protestantism might be dominant, but it didn’t tell the whole story. They could have institutionalized this Protestant dominance, but they chose to go another direction. And when it comes to religion, these Founders were both deeply spiritual and committed to a simple creed that focused on ethics not doctrine.
“Each journey was distinctive, but they ended up in similar places, still deeply spiritual but with an ever shortening list of required religious creeds. The older they got, the simpler their faith became” (p. 182).

What ultimately drives Waldman’s book is his concern about the continuation of religious liberty in America. That is a liberty to both practice and believe (or not) as one pleases. In arguing for a robust freedom of religion, Waldman believes that the Founders not only got it right, but that we need to listen to and understand their rationale for liberty so as to protect religious liberty today. In analyzing their contributions, he concludes that Founders were neither card-carrying orthodox evangelicals, as some would have us believe, nor were they necessarily wild eyed secularists, as others will argue. There were evangelicals in the mix, but some of them – like John Leland and Isaac Backus – were among the strongest proponents of separation of church and state. As for the five Founders under investigation, they weren’t orthodox, but the wouldn’t qualify as true Deists (Jefferson included), if we take the classic definition of Deism into account. All five would likely have affirmed a Unitarian version of Christianity, but they all believed in divine providence, affirming the direct involvement of God in human history. Indeed, they believed that God was active in America’s rise to nationhood. Therefore, they were likely closer in their theology to John Locke than to David Hume.

This attempt at taking the middle road may not sit well with all observers, but it would seem to be the most accurate accounting. His point is clear – if we’re going to use the Founder, let’s use them appropriately. They are not, as he says, “historical conversation stoppers” (p. 196).
To understand the decisions of the Revolutionary Era, one must understand the Colonial Era that gave rise to it. This was, as Waldman lays out for us, a period of state establishment – with Congregationalism in New England and Anglicanism in the Southern Colonies. Maryland may have started out as a safe haven for Roman Catholics, but in time it became an Anglican colony and Catholics became a persecuted minority. Baptists suffered under colonial rule, but even their disabilities paled in contrast to the Quakers, many of whom were executed for their faith. Founders such as Madison saw this happening around them and decided it could not continue. With this in mind, Waldman believes that the American Revolution was in many ways a religious war. In part it was driven by fears of Anglican establishment – including provision of bishops who might undermine the religious distinctives of the colonies. There was also concern about an ascendant Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. Fear of an imposed religious settlement drove the push for liberty. As described by Waldman, the picture of an established Christianity isn’t pretty and should stand as a warning of what could happen if America ever did become an officially Christian nation.

The Revolution itself had religious overtones, with patriot clergy rallying their congregations to the cause and political pamphleteers, including Thomas Paine, using religious language to defend and describe the revolutionary effort. This was in the minds of many God’s war, and thus it was a righteous cause. But even as they sought to wrap their cause in religious language, leaders such as George Washington discovered that success in this effort required not just toleration but bridging of differences. If they were to work together then they had to see each other as equals. Thus, even as they fought for their own freedoms, the soldiers discovered that they were fighting for the freedoms of others with whom they differed religiously.

The most important contribution is Waldman’s exploration of the religious identities and of Benjamin Franklin and the first four presidents. While none of these five would be welcomed into the modern evangelical fold, they each affirmed a supreme being/God who ruled over all and believed that religion played an essential role in the life of the nation. By their own definition each was a Christian – though they’re definition of Christianity would be different from some coreligionist. Theirs was a simple creed focused on ethics and behavior rather than on doctrine or institutions. They were not classic Deists, but instead viewed God as intimately involved in human and American history. Where they differed with “orthodox” Christians was in their Christology.

In many ways the hero of this book is James Madison. It is Madison, of course, who is the primary author of the U.S. Constitution, a document that is conspicuous by the absence of God from its pages. Article Six of the Constitution specifically forbids religious tests, and while Madison did not believe a Bill of Rights was necessary he made sure that there was an amendment that ensured religious freedom. Madison shared many beliefs with Jefferson, but according to Waldman Madison was just as concerned, if not more so, with the corrupting effects of state support on religion itself. Jefferson was more concerned about the possible evils of religious influences on government. Getting these provisions in the Constitution was not easy, for there were those, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams that wanted to see a stronger church-state relationship. But even as he fought tax assessments for churches in Virginia and argued vociferously for keeping religion and the state as separate as possible. While Jefferson was greatly concerned about the corrosive effects that a religious establishment might have on government, Madison was equally concerned about the unhealthy effects government support might have on religion. He truly believed that religion would flourish only if government got out of the way. History has proved him prescient.

The ultimate effect of the Founders vision took time to spread throughout American society. Madison didn’t believe a Bill of Rights was necessary, believing that the Constitution had provided sufficient protection of civil rights – including those of religious people – but he lost that debate. However, once it became clear that such a bill of rights would emerge he made sure that religious liberty was protected. Unfortunately, he was not able to get these protections extended beyond the Federal level. Compromises required the language to be muted and the effects narrowed. Therefore, it was not until the 14th Amendment was passed that these important rights were extended below the Federal level. Thus, when we talk about the interpretation of the Constitution we must recognize that a strict constructionist view that does not take into consideration the 14th Amendment will restrict, not expand, civil and religious liberties. Waldman writes:
“As interpreted by twentieth-century court rulings, the Fourteenth Amendment applied the principles of the First Amendment to the states eighty years after Madison had tried unsuccessfully to do the same” (p. 188).

In writing this book Waldman has attempted to disprove the assertion that to be an advocate of separation one is therefore anti-God or anti-religion. By highlighting the efforts of Madison and his evangelical supporters such as Leland and Backus, he has demonstrated otherwise. Whether or not the book will end the debate is uncertain, but surely he has helped clarify the issues. If you are at all concerned about religious liberty then this is a must read, and the foundation of important conversations within this country.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Changing World

The World is Changing, and with it America's role is changing. Although we still have the most powerful military in the world, our place in the world is different from what it was even a decade ago. Look at the world today. Iran is becoming an important and perhaps dominant regional power -- whether or not it has or gains nuclear weapons. Economically things are changing.
Watching the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics offers a view into a nation that is emerging as a major player in the world. This event has shown what China can do -- and that we can do little to intervene in what they do. In many ways the only thing that separates them from superpowerdom is a strong navy and that may come.
The conflict that has erupted in Georgia is another sign of the changes in the world. President Bush has spoken to Putin and Mevedev, has issued his complaints, but he's really in no position to object. The Russians can say in return, what's the difference from what we're doing and what you did in Iraq -- this is a pre-emptive strike. Thus, it will be left to Europe to help resolve this.
I just started reading Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World. In the introduction he makes the point that the changing world is not the result of a declining America, but rather a world that is catching up. We who live in America must begin to look at the world with new eyes. We can't become isolationists -- there is no where to hide. So, we must adapt. How we do in the coming decades as a country depends on how well we do this.
Indeed, the world is changing!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

War in the Caucasus Region

Even as the Olympics are underway, war is afoot in the Caucuses. Russians and Georgians have been at war over the region of South Ossetia, a region that has been part of Georgia, but which is pro-Moscow. I'm not sure who started this, but whatever the cause numerous civilians have died and have been put in harms way. This also shows that the break up of the Soviet Empire has left the region deeply troubled.

At the same time America has little influence, indeed as I listen to Americans chide the Russians for their aggression, our own aggression in Iraq undermines our witness. Did we not do much the same thing as the Russians have done? Again, we have lost our moral foundations, making our efforts to bring peace ring hollow.

The people of this region are in my thoughts and prayers. May they find peace and a solution to their boundary disputes.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Offering a Positive Message

I've been trying to stay away from the political angles lately in part because I'd found myself focusing on them when I got to the blog. But, living here in Michigan I've been bombarded by extremely negative and even nasty John McCain ads. I've yet to see a positive one. And from what I can see the ads will continue to be in that vein.

Barack Obama has, of course, offered his responses and called into question McCain's positions, but unlike McCain he's tried to stay away from attacking his character. Yes, the mud slinging has been effective. Yes, McCain has seemingly closed the gap. But turning negative without any positives would in the end seem to be self-defeating.

So, here check out this ad from Obama, which will be going up during the Olympics. Note the contrast between this and what we've been seeing from the McCain camp. When you watch this, ask who you would rather have lead us in the coming years?


Defining Heresy part two

My posing the question about the definition of heresy has created an interesting conversation -- something I of course like to see! Michael raised the question of my equating heresy and heterodoxy. With that in mind, I looked up the terms in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (a largely British work published in 1983). In this dictionary Alan Richardson does short work with the term heterodoxy = "Contrary to the received opinion; unorthodox." Stephen Sykes, however, goes into some detail as to the definition and usage of the term heresy.

He writes:

The traditional meaning of the term was rigorously defined in medieval canon law to signify the sin of a person who, having been baptized and calling him or herself a Christian, denies a defined doctrine of the faith even after having been formally instructed. 'Formal' heresy is such persistent adherence to erroneous teaching; 'material' heresy means adherence to error, without any culpability (for example, because the truth has never been presented as such). The definition of heresy is logically dependent, therefore, on that of defined doctrine. It presupposes that Christian truth may be known in such a way that one can recognize doctrines bearing a certain resemblance to the truth, but denying its substance. (S.v. "Heresy." By S. W. Sykes, , The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, Alan Richardson, editor. Westminster Press, 1983).

Such a definition of heresy requires a central teaching office/creedal formulation by which one is judged or judges oneself. For a noncreedal church like mine, the idea of heresy is problematic. I suppose we could say that one is heterodox -- that is, one is doing things or believing things that are contrary to received tradition (the way we've always done things) -- but it would be difficult to say that one is a heretic. In this day and age, in which most people wander from one denomination to another, an age that is ecumenical in practice even if not in name, calling one a heretic is difficult. But of course, we can still try!

However, if we use Michael's definition that includes schism (breaking fellowship or relationship) then the founders of the Disciples would affirm the word. For they were deeply concerned about the breaking of fellowship within the Christian community. It is why they embraced John Locke's ideas of a simple gospel that reflects the Biblical witness. Indeed there was the belief that only that which is clearly stated in the New Testament should be held up as necessary. Thus, while Alexander Campbell believed in the Trinity (in principle) he would neither use the word nor require it of others. This allowed him to stand in fellowship with Barton Stone, who likely was of an Arian persuasion. They disagreed as to the divine nature of Jesus, but they joined together in Christian fellowship.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Defining Heresy

In an earlier posting I asked the question: What is a Christian? That question came up in part because of questions about Barack Obama's faith profession. By some people's measure, he's not one. The question arises then about heresy -- and who is a heretic.

First, regarding Obama, it might be interesting to point out that in the 1800 election the John Adams campaign ran against Thomas Jefferson's apparent lack of religious conviction. Adams, was in the minds of some the Christian candidate -- note however that while Adams was more "religious" than Jefferson and considered himself a Christian, he was also a Unitarian. What is also interesting is that the group that put Jefferson over the top were Baptists!

But back to heresy. The word heresy is a synonym for heterodoxy -- that is, other than orthodox. To a Trinitarian a Unitarian is heterodox, but wouldn't the committed Unitarian see the Trinitarian as heterodox? Indeed, in many ways Christianity started out as a heterodox Jewish sect and in many ways we remain that. Muslims would consider Christians heterodox as well for we have broadened out the concept of monotheism to allow for a Trinity (that is if you're of the Trinitarian branch of Christianity).

Michael brings up dispensationalism -- in many ways it is heterodox. It is a fairly modern invention that unduly forces Scripture into a box. I might say the same about Creationism, which forces the Genesis text to speak on modern scientific issues. By that I mean, it is making it do something other than what it was intended to do. But the question then remains: who decides what is orthodox and heterodox?

As a Protestant there is no magisterium to decide this for me. As a Disciple I don't have an official creed that guides my interpretation. I am left to reason, tradition, experience, and the Spirit to guide my readings of Scripture and Christian experience. Am I a heretic? In the minds of many I probably am. Do I consider others heretical in their thinking -- well yes I do. But all that means is that as I look at the views of certain others, I've come to the conclusion that their views are deficient in some way. Now the question is: does that make them not a Christian or less than a Christian? Sometimes I feel that way, but the question is: who has given me the authority? I do have the right and responsibility to discern that which is right and good and that which is not. I'm perfectly in my rights to challenge that which I believe is out of character with the Gospel. But the task of ultimately judging what is in the heart of another -- well that's not my job!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Confessing a Faith


I asked the question: What is a Christian? It's a question that has raised questions and has led to some denunciations not just of Barack Obama, but me as a well. As I think about my faith and what that means for me, I should share that I am a pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We are a non-creedal church, limiting our confession of faith to the simple statement that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior." This simple confession is based on Peter's own confession (Mt. 16). It's simple and a bit open ended -- though it does place some parameters on who we are. Indeed, to be a Christian seems to imply (if nothing else) that Jesus makes a difference in one's life.

We're non-creedal (no official tests of fellowship), but we have created a variety of instruments to help confess faith -- even if no confession can be considered a test of fellowship. Here is the Preamble to the Design -- the official constitution that guides the church in it's daily life.
As you read this, I'm curious how you find it. Is it freeing or restrictive? Is it inviting or not?



As members of the Christian Church,

We confess that Jesus is the Christ,

the Son of the living God,

and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world. In Christ's name

and by his grace we accept our mission of witness and service to all people.

We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth,

and in God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.

Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of life

and are made one with the whole people of God.

In the communion of the Holy Spirit

we are joined together in discipleship and in obedience to Christ.

At the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving

the saving acts and presence of Christ.

Within the universal church we receive

the gift of ministry and the light of scripture.

In the bonds of Christian faith

we yield ourselves to God

that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end.

Blessing, glory, and honor be to God forever. Amen.

Principles for Reading the Bible

The Bible is a Sacred book. In it Christians and Jews find words from God. But finding such a word requires a certain amount of work. The Protestant Principle has declared that Scripture has sufficient clarity that we as human beings can sit down, read it, and understand it. We don't necessarily need inspired interpreters, because it is clear enough. But to say that doesn't mean that it's an easy task. For some Scripture is a "sacred text" that must be approached differently from any other text. But, is that an appropriate principle?

Alexander Campbell, a founder of the movement I'm a member of, wrote nearly more than 150 years ago these words:

God has spoken by men, to men, for men. The language of the Bible is, then human language. It is, therefore, to be examined by the same rules which are applicable to the language of any other book, and to be understood according to the true and proper meaning of the words, in their current acceptation, at the times and in the places in which they were written and translated. (Millennial Harbinger, 1846, quoted in Royal Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campell's Theology, St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961, p. 42).

Campbell wasn't a radical biblical critic, but he did understand the need to read Scripture as one would ready a non-sacred text. You read it in context, seeking to understand the historical and cultural context. In light of that information one may make an informed decision as to what it means. Campbell and those who would join his movement have long believed that we as the people of God have the right and responsibility to read this text, hoping to hear the Word of God. But in doing so, we're called to read it in an informed way.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Who is a Christian?

A piece written by Chicago Sun-Times writer Carol Falsani explores this question. Entitled "I have faith Obama has faith," it's a response to a piece written by Cal Thomas in response to her own earlier interview with Barack Obama. In that 2004 interview Falsani had talked with Obama about his faith. Thomas says, from reading this, that whatever Obama may claim -- he's not a Christian.
Falsani responds that from what Obama is very sincere about his faith, believes that he has a personal relationship with Jesus, but approaches faith humbly, refraining from questioning the faiths of others. Because Thomas -- like many Fundamentalists (and even atheists like Sam Harris) has a narrow view of Christianity that requires an exclusivist perspective then Obama fails to measure up. Of course, if we insist that our interpretation of Christianity is the only proper one then of course we set ourselves up as judges. Now, it is appropriate to raise questions about faith statements and about behavior -- but when it comes to what is in one's heart, that may be going too far.
Indeed, Falsani suggests with regard to Obama this has gone too far:

But the level of scrutiny of Obama's faith has surpassed what is helpful and veered into dangerous territory. At the end of the day, no one really knows what transpires between a person and his God. We must depend in large part -- trust, really -- what the man says about his beliefs.

I do believe she is right when she concludes:

Obama says he believes, abides and is trying to follow Jesus.

He's a humble believer and doesn't want to give the impression that he has the corner on truth. I respect that, although it makes fielding questions about his faith more complicated and provocative.

It is dangerous to try to judge the quality of a man's faith. That is God's purview, not ours.

So my question remains: What makes one a Christian?